As the Dalai Lama shares his message of dialogue and compassion in the UK in the coming days, we might find ourselves wondering whether a compassionate outlook can really be a driving force in our political, economic and social institutions.
If we look at our private lives, whether we would like to admit it or not, when circumstances are good, we all basically care about those around us. But the demands on our time and attention are such that our empathy can get quite fatigued, and we can't always see a way to make compassionate decisions in our professional life.
Our generation also tends to be bombarded by the idea that the dominant human tendency is selfishness, driven by our genes' blind wish to survive and continue their existence into the next generation. And yet, evolutionary theories of the survival of the fittest are now challenged by scientists from all backgrounds. American clinical psychologist and pioneer in the study of emotions Paul Ekman has recently revived Darwin's discussions about sympathy and compassion which run contrary to the competitive, ruthless, and selfish view of human nature that has been mistakenly attributed to a Darwinian perspective.
Scientists are now taking a close interest in the ways in which compassionate action can be fostered. "While compassion is a fundamental part of every religious tradition, there is an ever enlarging body of scientific evidence that being compassionate has immense positive impact on the individual both in regard to their mental and physical health." says Dr. James Doty, director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, which is organising next month the first large-scale international conference dedicated to the study of compassion.
British best-selling author and comparative religion expert Karen Armstrong has set out to bring compassion back to the centre of public consciousness. After she was awarded the TED Prize in 2008, which grants the winner 'one wish to change the world'--plus $100,000 to help make it happen, she launched the Charter for Compassion. The wish itself was simple--to establish compassionate thinking and action at the heart of religious, moral and political life. In London later this year, a number of the Charter for Compassion's partners have teamed up to gather scientists, thinkers and change-makers to discuss the topic of 'Empathy and Compassion in Society' and to explore in particular the possibilities of cultivating compassion, including self-compassion.
A few months ago, as we were discussing these topics, a head teacher said: "The problem is, we don't have any compassion for ourselves, so how could we have possibly have some for the people we work with and for our students?"
Neuroscience now backs up Aristotle's ancient statement that "we are what we repeatedly do". An example is this new research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison showing that training in compassion for as little as 30 minutes per day over a period of two weeks can bring discernable changes. Forty-one people followed an online training in two groups, one focusing on compassion training and the other on reappraisal training. The compassion training group gave more money in a role play used in research to assess pro-social behaviour. It also showed greater activation of the prefrontal cortex - the most evolutionarily developed part of the brain - and less activation of the amygdala. This seems to suggest that training in compassion helps us overcome our fear of missing out or loosing.
There are countless examples of ways in which compassion has transformed individuals, communities and whole countries. I hope to remember one of these examples the next time I have to make a decision-big or small-about my work or life, and that I make the compassionate choice.
Vinciane Rycroft is an educator in sustainable development, and the coordinator of the Empathy and Compassion in Society Partnership.